The Association was founded at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1918, in the rooms of Brian Downs, who was later to become Vice-Chancellor. The term Modern Humanities was chosen, in part, because 'modern languages' was then suggestive of school-teaching rather than University study. Until 1945, MHRA's main activity was to edit Modern Language Review and bibliographies of English studies and modern languages, respectively. Under the dynamic leadership of Stanley Aston, MHRA was then a founder member of the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures (FILLM), a UNESCO initiative. As Hon. Treasurer, serving from 1963 to 2001, Roy Wisbey transformed MHRA's finances, putting its publications onto a secure financial footing. He and his successors, David Wells, Dorothy Severin, Brian Richardson, and Alison Finch, steadily expanded MHRA's activities, acquiring for example the journal Austrian Studies and the Legenda imprint, and founding both new journals and book series.

For a more detailed history of the Association to 2004, see this account by David Wells.